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The Happiness Trinity 幸福三位一体

Why it’s so hard to answer the question What makes us happiest?

An illustration showing a triptych of smiley faces: one inside a diamond ring, one inside a quarter, and one inside a magnifying glass
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.
由大西洋(The Atlantic)提供插图。来源:盖蒂(Getty)。

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这是《Work in Progress》简报,关于工作、技术以及如何解决美国一些重大问题的内容。在这里注册。

After writing about how and why Americans are depressed, I thought I’d turn things around for a change. What matters most for happiness—marriage, money, or something else entirely?

The message of W. Bradford Wilcox’s new book is right there in the title: Get Married. “Marital quality is, far and away, the top predictor I have run across of life satisfaction in America,” Wilcox writes. “When it comes to predicting overall happiness, a good marriage is far more important than how much education you get, how much money you make, how often you have sex, and, yes, even how satisfied you are with your work.” According to survey data from Gallup, matrimony improves every flavor of well-being you can think of. Married couples experience more “enjoyment,” less “worry,” less “sadness,” less “stress,” less “anger,” and much, much less “loneliness.”
威尔科克斯(W. Bradford Wilcox)新书的主旨就在标题中:结婚吧。“在美国,婚姻质量远远是我发现的生活满意度的最重要预测因素”,威尔科克斯写道。“对于预测整体幸福,一个美满的婚姻远比你接受多少教育、赚多少钱、多频繁的性生活、以及甚至你对工作有多满意更为重要”。根据盖洛普的调查数据,婚姻改善了你所能想到的各种幸福感。已婚夫妇更多地体验到“愉悦”,更少的“担忧”,更少的“悲伤”,更少的“压力”,更少的“愤怒”,以及远远少得多的“孤独”。

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Wilcox is not unusual in hailing the salubrious effects of getting hitched. As my colleague Olga Khazan has reported, a recent analysis of General Social Survey data found that Americans’ happiness generally declined from the 1970s to 2020. The author of the paper, the University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman, concluded that, after adjusting for demographics, one thing explained “most of the recent decline in overall happiness”: the decline of marriage.
威尔科克斯在赞扬结婚的健康效果方面并不罕见。正如我的同事奥尔加·哈赞(Olga Khazan)报道的,最近一项对《通用社会调查》数据进行的分析发现,从 1970 年代到 2020 年代,美国人的幸福感普遍下降。这篇论文的作者,芝加哥大学经济学家萨姆·佩尔兹曼(Sam Peltzman)得出这样的结论,在对人口统计学进行调整后,有一件事解释了“最近整体幸福感下降的大部分原因”:那就是婚姻的下降。

That would seem dispositive—the definitive answer to my question. But marriage is a lot of things at once. Legally speaking, marriage is a license. Practically speaking, marriage is love, friendship, sex, joint checking accounts, coffee routines, co-parenting, and the sheer fact of another person just being there all the time.

I focused on this last aspect when I recently interviewed Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, the director and the associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which is the longest-running study of adult happiness ever conducted. In their book, The Good Life, Waldinger and Schulz proposed that the most important predictor of lifelong well-being was “social fitness,” their term for the quality of relationships in our lives, across family, friends, and community.

“Most people find that marriage provides that secure base of attachment, that sense of, ‘I’ve got somebody here when I’m in trouble,’” Waldinger told me. “But then what we discovered was that marriage provides all these benefits that are quite mundane, like somebody who gets you to remember to eat, somebody who gets you to remember to go to the doctor, to take your medication. It sounds trivial, except it turns out to really matter for whether you’re happy and whether you stay healthy.”

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Social fitness isn’t marriage, exactly—it’s more like the genus under which marriage is the dominant species. Life is an obstacle course of one mess after another, Waldinger and Schulz told me; people need friends and companions to pull them through the Tough Mudder. But platonic relationships often ebb and flow over time, as people change, switch jobs, and move around. There’s no such thing as a legally binding social institution that forces platonic friends to maintain intimacy. But that’s exactly what marriage is (among other things): a legally binding social institution that encourages friends to maintain intimacy.
社交健身并不完全等同于婚姻,它更像是婚姻作为主导物种所属的属。Waldinger 和 Schulz 告诉我,生活就是一个接一个混乱的障碍赛道;人们需要朋友和伴侣来帮助他们度过困难的泥泞赛。但是纯粹的关系往往随着时间的推移而起伏不定,因为人们会改变、换工作和搬家。并不存在一种法律约束的社会制度,强迫纯粹的朋友保持亲密关系。但这正是婚姻的作用(除其他外):一种法律约束的社会制度,鼓励朋友保持亲密关系。

I’m fond of the analysis and worldview of Wilcox, Peltzman, Waldinger, and Schulz. There is something undeniably warm and comforting about the idea that other people are the core of contentment. But sometimes, I get a nagging suspicion that all this talk about companionship overlooks a crucial pillar of well-being: money.
我喜欢 Wilcox, Peltzman, Waldinger 和 Schulz 的分析和世界观。关于其他人是幸福的核心这个观念有一种无可否认的温暖和安慰。但有时我开始怀疑所有这些关于陪伴的谈论是否忽视了幸福的一个关键支柱:金钱。

After all, marriage and several key measures of social fitness rise and fall with income. High-income people are more likely to get married and less likely to get divorced. And, in part because marriage allows people to combine incomes and avoid redundant expenses, married people tend to be richer in their 50s and 60s, Wilcox reminded me. When it comes to social fitness, several surveys show that people with more money have more social time and are less lonely.
毕竟,婚姻和若干个社会适应度的关键指标都随着收入的变化而上下波动。高收入的人更有可能结婚,较不容易离婚。并且,部分原因是因为婚姻让人们可以合并收入和避免重复开支,Wilcox 提醒我说,所以结婚的人在 50 至 60 岁时更富有。在社会适应度方面,几项调查显示,拥有更多钱的人有更多社交时间,更少感到孤独。

Maybe because high wealth is more exclusionary than marriage or friendship—it’s much easier to get married than to become a millionaire—we delude ourselves about the happiness premium of income. There is a popular idea known as the Easterlin paradox, which says that the correlation between rising incomes and rising well-being suddenly hits a ceiling around $75,000 for an individual, in 2010 dollars. But this theory is almost certainly false—and, indeed, it has been repeatedly falsified. In a 2012 paper, the economists Daniel Sacks, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers concluded that “data show no evidence for a satiation point above which income and well-being are no longer related.” Rather, the correlation weakens a bit over time, in a way that’s totally intuitive. It feels better to get a $5,000 raise if you’re earning $40,000 as a restaurant server than it does if you’re already earning $10 million as a chief executive.
也许是因为高财富比婚姻或友谊更具排他性——结婚要比成为百万富翁容易得多——所以我们对收入的幸福溢价产生了幻觉。有一个流行的观念称为伊斯特林悖论,它指出收入上升与幸福感之间的相关性在个人收入达到 2010 年美元 75,000 美元时突然达到了一个上限。但这个理论几乎肯定是错误的——事实上,它已经被反复证明是虚假的。在 2012 年的一篇论文中,经济学家丹尼尔·萨克斯、贝茜·史蒂文森和贾斯汀·沃尔夫斯得出的结论是“数据显示没有证据支持收入和幸福感之间存在饱和点”。相反,相关性会随着时间逐渐减弱,这是完全合理的。如果你是一名餐厅服务员,收入为$40,000,那么涨工资 5000 美元会感觉更好,而如果你已经是一家公司首席执行官,收入已经是 1000 万美元,那么再涨 5000 美元就感觉不那么好了。

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Last week, I called Gallup’s principal economist, Jonathan Rothwell, and repeated a version of my initial question: What matters most for happiness—marriage, social well-being, or income? Rothwell, to his credit, told me that the question would be incredibly difficult to answer to any level of full satisfaction, but he’d give it a try anyway. A frequent writer on happiness issues, Rothwell defines happiness using a statistical measure called “thriving in well-being,” which combines current life evaluations with future life evaluations. This is because happiness is a slippery thing to define temporally. If I am having a bad day but am generally happy with my life, that’s not misery; if I am having a good week but am miserably depressed about the next five years of my life, that’s not contentment.
上周,我打电话给 Gallup 的首席经济学家乔纳森·罗思维尔,并重复了我最初的问题的一个版本:幸福最重要的是什么--婚姻、社会福祉还是收入? 乔纳森·罗思维尔值得称赞的是告诉我,这个问题将会非常难以满意地回答,但他还是会尽力去回答。作为幸福问题的常驻作家,罗思维尔使用了一个叫做“幸福的繁荣” 的统计衡量方法来定义幸福,它结合了当前生活评估和未来生活评估。这是因为幸福在时间上是很难定义的。如果我今天过得不好但对我的生活总体上很满意,那就不是痛苦;如果我这周过得很好但对未来五年的生活感到非常沮丧,那就不是满足。

After a day or two crunching data, Rothwell got back to me with the results. He told me that his analyses clearly confirmed Wilcox’s theory: Marriage definitely, definitely matters, a lot. It improves well-being in every dimension, for every level of income. Overall, the average marriage-happiness premium was about 18 percent. That is, among all adults aged 30 to 50, about 41 percent of unmarried adults said they were thriving versus nearly 60 percent of married adults.
后来经过一两天的数据分析,罗斯韦尔向我回复了结果。他告诉我,他的分析清楚地证实了威尔科克斯的理论:婚姻确实,绝对重要,对所有收入水平来说都提高了幸福感的各个方面。总的来说,平均的婚姻幸福感溢价约为 18%。也就是说,在 30 至 50 岁之间的所有成年人中,大约 41%的未婚成年人表示他们正在蓬勃发展,而将近 60%的已婚成年人也是如此。

But when he compared happiness across income levels, another story emerged. Income, he said, plays an enormous role in predicting happiness as well. Low-income adults in Gallup’s survey were mostly unhappy, whether or not they were married. The highest-income adults were mostly quite happy, whether or not they are married. For example, married couples who earn less than $48,000 as a household are as likely to say they’re happy as single adults who earn $48,000 to $60,000, and a married couple who makes $90,000 to $180,000 as a household is almost exactly as likely to say they’re happy as a single person making $180,000 to $240,000.
但当他比较了不同收入水平下的幸福感时,另一种情况浮现了。他说,收入在预测幸福感上起了巨大作用。在盖洛普的调查中,低收入成年人大多感到不快乐,无论是否已婚。而最高收入的成年人大多感到相当快乐,无论是否已婚。例如,家庭收入低于 48000 美元的已婚夫妇和年收入在 48000 至 60000 美元之间的单身成年人一样可能表示自己幸福,而家庭年收入在 90000 至 180000 美元之间的已婚夫妇几乎跟单身年收入在 180000 至 240000 美元的人一样可能表示他们幸福。

Finally, Rothwell ran a test to isolate the correlative strength of several factors, including education, religion, marriage, income, and career satisfaction. Marriage was strongly correlated with his measure of happiness, even after accounting for these other factors. But social well-being (Gallup’s proxy for what Waldinger and Schulz call “social fitness”, which includes rating on the quality of marriages and close relationships) was even stronger. Income was stronger still. And financial well-being—that is, having enough money to do what you want to do and feeling satisfied with your standard of living—was the best predictor of Gallup’s definition of thriving.

One could draw a snap judgment from this analysis and conclude that money, in fact, simply buys happiness. I think that would be the wrong conclusion. Clever sociologists will always find new ways of “calculating” that marriage matters most, or social fitness explains all, or income is paramount. But the subtler truth seems to be that finances, family, and social fitness are three prongs in a happiness trinity. They rise together and fall together. Low-income Americans have seen the largest declines in marriage and experience the most loneliness. High-income Americans marry more and have not only richer investment accounts but also richer social lives. In this light, the philosophical question of what contributes most to happiness is just the beginning. The deeper question is why the trinity of happiness is so stratified by income—and whether well-being in America is in danger of becoming a luxury good.

Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Work in Progress newsletter.
Derek Thompson 是《大西洋月刊》的一名特约撰稿人,也是《Work in Progress》通讯的作者。